Sunday, June 04, 2017

Varieties of religious experience

A Christian responds to my earlier post on God, but I don’t see many actual arguments for the existence of God in there (criticizing “metaphysical nominalism” doesn’t count).  The testimony argument is offered, but I considered that in my original post, and I don’t see a rebuttal to what I wrote.

1. I appreciate Cowen's acknowledging the response. That said:

i) It wasn't my aim to mount a full-blown case for theism, but to respond to some of Cowen's objections.

ii) As far as that goes, he didn't catch on to the strategy. If the standard paradigm of naturalism is defined by physicalism and causal closure, and if we can cite various lines of evidence that falsify the standard paradigm of naturalism (thus defined), then the alternative will be theism by default. You don't need positive arguments for theism to prove theism if it's a choice between two alternatives–theism and naturalism–and you disprove the alternative to theism.

There are, of course, many positive arguments for theism, but I preferred to take an indirect approach, because that's a neglected strategy.

iii) In addition, evidence for the historicity of the Gospels automatically translates into evidence for theism. Indeed, a very specific type of theism: Christian theism!  

iv) But by way of direct response to his inquiry, here are some actual arguments of the existence of God:

Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason and Theistic Proof (Edinburgh University Press, 1997)

William Lane Craig & J. P. Moreland, eds. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

Jerry L. Walls & Trent Dougherty, eds. Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

2. Regarding testimony, I believe he's alluding to point #6 of in his original post:

I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature to everybody — it’s one of the best books period.  But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong.  Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other.

Several issues:

i) If he's using William James's classic monograph as his standard of comparison, that's disanalogous to the material I cited. James's treatment is a study in religious psychology: "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine," or "inner experiences". 

But a collection of subjective impressions, including mysticism, isn't comparable to the material I cited in reference to miracles and the paranormal.   There's a categorical difference between testimony to private mental states and testimony to public events, including veridical experiences. 

ii) Regarding the value of testimonial evidence in general, including criterion to sift reliable from unreliable testimony, here's a classic study:

C. A. J. Coady, Testimony: A Philosophical Study (Oxford University Press, 1992).

Likewise, this work includes a detailed defense of anecdotal evidence:

Stephen E. Braude, The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis and the Philosophy of Science (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), chap. 1. 

iii) In addition, philosophical critiques of Hume assess and defend the value of testimonial evidence in reference to miracles. For instance:

John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford, 2000)

D. Geivett & G. Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History (IVP, 1997)

Joseph Houston, Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume (Cambridge, 1994)

David Johnson, Hume, Holism, and Miracles (Cornell, 2002)

Robert Larmer, The Legitimacy of Miracle (Lexington Books, 2013) 

iv) Regarding pagan accounts of gods, I don't know what Cowen has in mind. Homer's Iliad, Hesiod's Theogony, Ovid's Metamorphosis, and the Bhagavad Gita (to take a few paradigm examples) are hardly accounts based on testimony in the sense of reported observations by eyewitnesses. The genre is fictional. That's hardly analogous to the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), or case-studies of miracles I referred to.  


  1. Steve,
    I was rereading a post of yours on George Muller and you mentioned Dabney's critique of his prayer life. I have read most of it. Anyway, I am curious as to what your views on whether Dabney was right or that Mueller did indeed have an extraordinary prayer life that we should emulate. By the latter, I do not mean the Prosperity gospel word of faith types that would probably try to lay some claim on him but rather praying the promises of the Bible.

    1. i) It's been a while since I read the Dabney. As I recall, he indicated that there was nothing extraordinary about Muller's experience because he published annual reports on the financial needs of the orphanage. People donated to his orphanage.

      That's possible, but it would depend on the timing and the specific amount in relation to a specific need and a specific time.

      In addition, not all of Muller's answered prayer were in reference to the orphanage.

      ii) My impression is that he did have an extraordinary prayer life.

      iii) It would be disastrous for Christians in general to emulate his faith. Rather, I think it's the case that God moves in extraordinary ways in some lives but not others.

      For that matter, God might to a few extraordinary things for a person at a particular time of life, but that wouldn't be a regular occurrence.

      iv) I don't think we should count on miracles or extraordinary special providences unless we have some sign from God.

      We should expect God to perform miracles or do extraordinary things. But that doesn't mean we should expect it to happen to anyone in particular. It's unpredictable.

      To take a comparison, it's statistically extraordinary that any particular car will have that specific number on the license plate, yet it's inevitable that some car will have that number.

      I'm not suggesting miracles and answer prayers are random. I just use that to illustrate the principle that something can be expected in one respect but unexpected in another. Something can be rare, but inevitable. You know it's going to happen sometime, somewhere, but you don't know when or where.

  2. I also saw that it was tied to the cessationist vs. charismatic discussion as well but I did not quite follow that part.

  3. What then of answers to prayer? Where would the extraordinary or miraculous end and the ordinary begin of Christ says what we ask in his name and according to His will is granted?

    1. There are different kinds of prayer requests. They often involve things beyond our control. In some cases, It's something someone else can do for me, but not something I'm in a position to do for myself. If that happens, it's not extraordinary, but it's needful and very opportune.

      But in other cases they require something highly unlikely or impossible in the ordinary course of nature.